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Tea culture and history... for tea lovers!

For many people, England and tea are inseparable. However, how long has tea been the drink of favour there? What was drunk before this? When did it arrive? Who first added milk? To find the answers to these and some other fascinating facts about tea, read on...

Tea timeline:

  • 2737 B.C. Shen Nung, Emperor of China discovers tea

True to form, tea begins as a drink of the nobility. It is unclear whether this date is accurate, but much of the wonder of tea lies in its mystery!

  • A.D. 729 First tea reported in Japan (Emperor Shomu)

Japan becomes the first country outside China to grow tea, and it becomes a vital part of the culture, finding its finest expression in the tea ceremony.

  • 800 Lu Yu writes the Ch'a Ching

The first documented book of tea; many still regard this as the authoratative volume.

  • 1560 Portugese make first mention of tea

Astonshingly, before this late date, there is no recorded contact between western people and tea.

  • 1612 Tea first comes to Europe

However, the drink still takes many years to finally reach Europe.

  • 1658 First tea in England (soon replaces ale as national drink)

Tea was the third of the beverages to arrive, after cocoa and coffee. While initially expensive, it was welcomed as an alternative to the alcoholic breakfast, lunch, and dinner that came before!

  • 1680 Milk added to tea in France (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal)

There is much dispute about where and when milk was first added to what was largely green tea at that time. Stories include its use in China from antiquity, and there is also some evidence that the English added milk soon after the first leaves arrived.

  • 1820s Anna, Duchess of Bedford invents “Afternoon tea”

Life as an aristocrat in early nineteenth century England was surprisingly hard. The nobility would rise late and enjoy a late breakfast/lunch at around midday. Dinner would often be a somewhat sophisticated affair with guests aplenty, beginning some time after eight. The long wait between caused Anna of Bedford to feel a "sinking feeling" in the middle of the afternoon, which she resolved with tea and cakes. This practice--afternoon tea--was soon a social "hit" and emulated countrywide. To this day, afternoon tea (at 3 or 4 pm) is a reviving break to many a weary socialite.

  • 1823 Tea discovered in Assam

The popularity of tea was only dampened by its price--respectable houses would keep a lock on the caddy to discourage its loss from servants. Before 1823, ALL tea came from China and the British looked desperately for a cheaper and nearer source. Thus, there was great joy when a tea plant turned up in the (then) British colony of Assam, in India. Known as "Empire Tea," Assam was also called "a bitter tea" because of the large number of planters who succumed to illness, insects, and tigers while clearing the jungles.

  • 1835 Tea first planted in Darjeeling

Many people are surprised to hear that tea is not native to Darjeeling. In the 1830s, it was a quiet hill station; a place for the officers of the Raj to recover from the heat of the cities. The high altitude and clear air was found to produce a very delicate leaf, and many of the original estates are still in operation.

  • 1838 First Assam tea arrives in England

The first lot was just a few chests, but Assam production grew to become the largest in the world at one point.

  • 1839 Tea first planted in Ceylon

Ceylon was well-known for coffee until a blight wiped it out in the middle of the nineteenth century. While the value of land plummetted, a few brave planters tried with tea instead, and found it unaffected by the disease. Today, it remains one of Sri Lanka's major industries.

  • 1903 Tea first planted in Kenya

Kenya is now among the largest tea producers, though its history of tea is not as long as commonly assumed!

  • The 20th century

The twentieth century brought innovation to tea including:

    • Teabags
    • Instant tea
    • Canned tea

While some of these are regarded with skepticism by tea purists, there is no shortage of traditional, high quality orthodox teas for those willing to search for them. Tea is currently growing in popularity, and its future looks assured!

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